Image shown: Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

To celebrate Arts and Health Month this November, is pleased to present our inaugural In Conversation series. We are talking to professionals who have a dual practice as artists and healthcare practitioners. What inspires them in their work? How have their practices influenced each other? What do they feel the health sciences can learn from the arts and the arts from the health sciences? In the first of the series, met with Mary Clancy, a visual artist and dentist based in Cork. 

Mary Clancy currently teaches restorative dentistry to students at Cork University Dental School and Hospital. Mary has won numerous awards for her art practice including the Ernst and Young Award (2007) and the Countess Markievicz Gold Medal for Painting from the Dublin Arts Society (2004).

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary, you originally studied dentistry at Trinity College Dublin and worked in Canada before moving back to Ireland. Can you tell me about your background and what drew you to dentistry in the first place?

Like all teenagers it’s a bit of a lottery when you pick something to go on to study after school but I suppose it’s a weighted lottery; my parents would have been a strong influence and they were both probably very forward thinking, feminists before their time. They were adamant that I should be able to support myself.

The other thing that influenced my decision was my choice of subjects. I think there are very few schools that offer science and art because they seem to be timetabled together. I got channelled into the chemistry and physics classes so that made my choices more limited in one respect and more open in another.

So when it came to the ‘what will I do?’ as a teenager, I think it was a toss-up between something like architecture and dentistry– I was really keen on doing architecture because it combined science and an element of creativity and I could see myself drawing, planning and designing. And my home life was very much like that, there were always things being made, even furniture, it was a ‘making’ place. But in the end I opted for dentistry and I have absolutely no regrets, it is fantastic career and it has allowed me to explore my artistic side.

Contemplating Klein by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.
Contemplating Klein by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

Can you elaborate on how dentistry allowed you to explore your creative side?

When I was studying, there were lots of practical, hands on elements, everything from anatomy, dissection to actually restoring teeth, carving restorations; these are the things that I teach my students today. And at the same time, I was taking ceramics classes at night in Trinity. While I never thought of myself as doing an artistic training while I was studying dentistry, I think dentistry is an artistic training. You have to love working with your hands and you have to be interested in people.

On moving back to Ireland, you studied Fine Art at the Crawford College of Art and Design in Cork…

Not immediately. I went to evening classes run by Joe Keys, who has passed away now sadly. I had completed several terms and he had said ‘Mary, would you think of doing a degree?’ In fact a friend of mine, Christine Gallagher, and I used to laugh and she’d say ‘when we grow up we’ll go to art college’. Unfortunately Christine, who was a lovely young watercolourist, got cancer and died within a few months. I came to the realisation that life could be short, I may never grow up and that I had better seize the moment.

I also worried about whether I was actually good enough to go to art college and whether I was now too set in my ways. I wanted to know whether I was adaptable enough to be able to learn. So I did a Diploma in Art, Craft and Design and I absolutely loved it. And there was no question then that I wanted to do the four year degree. I was fortunate to have the encouragement and support of my husband and children who flourished under my benign neglect at that time.

Detail from Kerylos VII by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

You specialised in painting at Crawford College, is that correct?

Not initially. Actually, we were encouraged to explore everything. I did foundry, life drawing , sculpture and printing. I particularly liked foundry because I had cast gold for dentistry. I had to pass board exams in Canada and at the time you had to cast your own gold work. So then when I went into foundry at CCAD I was not at a novice level. But of course the scale of it – I was able to cast on a bigger scale and that was great fun. Now I find myself drawn back towards 3D and maybe this is why dentistry suited me and why I’m interested in architecture and spaces in my painting.

Were there any other ways in which the skills you’d acquired helped when you were doing your art degree?

I think it was a help and hindrance. For dentistry, you have to be – dare I call it – a nit-picker, you have to be so precise, neat and tidy. However, to explore your creative ideas, you don’t want to be harnessed or hampered by this obsession with everything being neat and precise. So sometimes I had to force myself to be messy and I found that really difficult, but on the other hand, it was a help in that I had honed my fine-motor skills. If I wanted to do something very fine and exacting, I knew I could do it because I had been honing that skill all the way along in dentistry

Also, there were the materials; I was used to using different waxes, plaster, silicone, resins, casting metals as I mentioned before. I knew about annealing metals, patination, things like that. I had learned the chemistry and I was used to handling these materials. Also, aspects of colour; while the colour range in dentistry would seem to be very narrow, just shades of white, nonetheless within that you have to be very exacting about what value and hue you pick, the amount of saturation. Is it too light? Is it too dark? Is it tones of red or tones of yellow? And then in art there is the whole spectrum to play with, I found that quite exciting.

All those things I suppose fed, in an unconscious way, into my art education; I brought that toolkit with me to art college. I kept quite a strict barrier between dentistry and art. I didn’t allow the things that I had learned about in the world, scientific things, such as physiology, to inform the subject of the art. I parked them to one side of my brain while I was creating my art practice. I’ve realised of late that in fact what I want to do is reinvest my art with scientific knowledge that I have acquired from dentistry. And I think I’ve come to this sort of late in the game.

Detail from artwork by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

You say you’ve come to this late in the game. How would you describe your art practice up to this point?

My art up to now has been very much figurative and it has been largely painting of spaces but I was much more interested in private spaces, rather than the monumental facades or grand landscapes or city spaces or anything like that; very private spaces, studios, kitchens, interiors usually incorporating how the light comes in through a window or a door and how it fractures the space into light and dark; how different that can look at different times of the day creating a different atmosphere. While I did life-drawing for a long time, when I look back I very rarely put figures into the spaces. I wanted to invite the viewer into unoccupied, private places of solitude, retreat or calm.

I’ve also done a whole series on musical instruments. It is my hope that the light and colour convey a sense of the music. So that was what I was up to until very recently.

Blue Note by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

When did you realise that you wanted to reinvest your art practice with the knowledge you’d acquired from dentistry?

I came to a realisation over the last year – given all the changes that have gone on in the world, politically, socially, environmentally – that I wanted to invest my work with a different kind of meaning. I went to The Slade this summer and took a course on Painting in Contemporary Practice and I attended lectures by Ron Bowen on how all marks empty out over time. Is it relevant for us now to go back to art history and draw from that source for mark marking now? He put into words what I had been feeling since the old world order has been upended in so many places around the world.

I really wanted to explore a different kind of mark making and I realised that I can invest my own practice with some of the scientific knowledge that I have and maybe bring this to a new audience in a different way, not in a literal way but in a more interpretative manner. I’m very invested in the body because that’s what I’ve studied and I am exploring new ways of bringing that to a new audience.

This bridging of your art and science backgrounds…

This division between arts and science, really it’s a relatively modern thing. The early explorers of the world and nature didn’t see their exploration as either an artistic endeavour as opposed to a scientific endeavour or vice versa, it was just about discovery and bringing those discoveries to a new light.

I particularly like Tolstoy’s definition of art as “a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward wellbeing of individuals and of humanity.” And I think that’s really what art is but it’s also what healthcare is. I mean you could apply that to any healthcare worker, that’s what their aim is. And I think it’s coming back together again, this movement in education from STEM to STEAM.

That’s where I want to go with my art right now. I’m working on a series at the moment which appears to be more abstract but they actually are based on the body. I’m looking at muscle fasciculation but the strange thing is that the way I’ve represented it, it’s creating a texture, something tactile, something slightly spatial. I want to invest my mark with something that is relevant to the world now, and if I can communicate that to somebody else, it’s going to be much more meaningful.

Mini sculptures by dental students at Cork University Dental School and Hospital. Courtesy of the artist.

How has your training and practice as a visual artist influenced your work as an academic clinical instructor and your approach to your students?

I think it has improved me as a tutor immeasurably, I think, I don’t know what my students think. I have much more empathy for their learning process because as an art student in the morning, I might have been getting it in the neck from my tutor, and then in the afternoon I was on the other side of the desk with my dental students.

I have a very visual way of describing things. Often when I’m explaining a process or a form we’re trying to create in order to achieve the correct function, I will draw it on the screen. I make models for the students to use and some of them have made miniature sculptures from modelling clay to hone their 3D perception and build their micromotor skills.

You recently curated an arts project with your students which formed part of an exhibition at Cork University Hospital. What was the impetus behind the project?

I was very curious about how this millennial generation look to the future and I also think that university is more than just learning a skill set. I suppose one of the things about dentistry is that you could end up being a very narrow thinker. They were talking about what was going on in the world – so I said how do you see the future? And is this something you’d like to explore in a non-dental sense, we could do a group thing on this?

I had to think long and hard about how it would be sufficiently open-ended that their enthusiasm would not be squashed. It also had to be something that wasn’t arduous. So I came up with the idea of a 2-minute sketch so that it would be a reflex. And some of them said, ‘oh but I can’t draw’. And I said, this has nothing to do with drawing, it’s just your idea, we’re not going to put names on it so you can put down something quite private, something that you feel deeply within you and you would like to say – this is how I see the future for good or bad.

I had no idea what would come out of it, absolutely none, but a lot of themes came out of it that I felt were universal themes; love, relationships, friendship. There were also global themes of concern about the political climate, Trump, Brexit, and how technology was influencing their lives. I remember one particular sketch of people sitting across a table not talking to each other, but looking at their iPhones. It was like a window into each other’s private thoughts.

101 Visions of the Future by students at Cork University Dental School and Hospital. Courtesy of the artist.

Would you like to do more art projects in the future and do you see art as having that kind of role within your teaching practice?

Absolutely, I would really love to do more art projects with them because I think it makes them discuss things,  it makes university much more interesting, so they’re not learning from their tutors, they’re learning from each other, they’re learning how others think, it’s communication, it opens up new perspectives for them.

You are a trained and practised facilitator in Visual Thinking Strategies. What is this methodology and why do you feel it is beneficial for dentistry students?

UCC have brought in Visual Thinking Strategies. It’s a teaching and learning methodology that aims to increase observation, communication, collaboration and critical thinking.

We take students in small groups and the students look at specifically selected artworks, they’re not random artworks, they’re graded from the simple towards more complex narratives throughout the programme. They discuss the work guided by open ended questions from the facilitator. It is my job to reflect what has been said by a participant, back to the group, linking it and reframing it so as to invite others into the discussion. I’m not part of the discussion, I’m there to make sure that they hear each other and allow each other space for a difference of opinion.

Specifically in relation to health sciences, we feel that critical thinking is perhaps the thing that is missing from our students when they come from school. They’re coming from a rote learning environment.

Critical thinking requires deep observation and an assumption that you will not grasp everything in the first take. Dentistry is not just about teeth, it’s about observing the whole patient, seeing all of the signs and symptoms, and not necessarily signs and symptoms of disease, but signs and symptoms of perhaps other things that might be going on in a patient’s life. It requires observation and communication to treat dis-ease, because if you think of the word as dis-ease as ‘not being at ease’ as opposed to pathology then it involves the whole patient.

How have your students responded to Visual Thinking Strategies?

They have been overwhelmingly positive; in viewing art together and discussing it they realise how differently other people see the same things, other perspectives, which is exactly what we want them to understand.

I think it’s certainly changed the way I teach. And I’m hoping that more and more, it will change the way students respond, that they don’t have that school Leaving response, a prepared answer, that they consider the whole of the patient, the whole of the case management scenario.

Image shown: 101 Visions of the Future. L-R Some of the participating students from Cork Dental School and Hospital; Mary Clancy, Clinical Instructor in Restorative Dentistry; Edelle Nolan, Arts Co-ordinator
101 Visions of the Future. L-R Some of the participating students from Cork Dental School and Hospital; Mary Clancy; Edelle Nolan, Cork University Hospital Arts Co-ordinator.

How do you balance your work as an academic clinical instructor and as a practising artist?

I’m a woman, we’re multitaskers, we juggle everything, don’t we? I’ve always been a juggler. One thing in dentistry is that you’re actually watching the clock. You don’t want your patient to know you’re watching the clock but you’ve got somebody else coming in the door. So you do hear this internal clock and even when I was in art college, I would know that I had so much time to stretch this canvas or go and do some research in the library.

And one is relief from the other. It allows me to switch gear. My art can be very slow, very contemplative. I’m much more aware of time when I’m doing my teaching and I’m aware of how long it’s taking my students to do a particular task because I know that that’s a skill set I have to pass on. On the other hand, if I have a lot of different ideas my art can be a bit frenetic. So I suppose for my art practice, it happens when it happens.

To be honest most artists have to have another job; art is not self-supporting. So we all juggle, we all have two sides and maybe it makes us better artists.

Have you experienced any negativity from the arts and medical fields in relation to your art practice?

If you say that you’re a dentist as well as a practicing artist, the assumption is that you’re a dentist first and that being an artist is your hobby, that you’re a Sunday afternoon painter and that it’s just something you do to fill in the gaps. There’s also an assumption that perhaps you didn’t invest enough time in training in art, that you didn’t have enough time to do that. I know a lot of dentists who have an artistic strand that they don’t always talk about. I know a photographer, a quilter, a painter. Equally I think the art world is somewhat elitist about someone having another profession; that somehow it indicates a lack of artistic commitment.

These attitudes are outdated and the next generation will not see themselves defined by a choice that they made as teens but will expect to have many careers in their working lives.

Detail from Kerylos VIII by Mary Clancy. Courtesy of the artist.

On a final note, what do you think the health sciences can learn from the arts and what can the arts learn from the health sciences?

If we are to think of art as communication between people, understanding and increased empathy, that in itself is an artform. And so healthcare workers would consider themselves as artists, artists of understanding, and artists would see that they are increasing understanding of the world through their communication. They’re not so far apart; they’re very much operating in the same realm but just from different perspectives. So I would like to see a lot more integration of arts in healthcare and I would like the subject of healthcare to feed into the visual arts.

I think it’s human nature to want to classify. It makes things understandable when we classify them. And in classifying things to make the understanding better, we lose the richness of things and we lose the potential for cross-pollination. And I think it’s that cross-pollination that could lead to much more exciting ideas in both fields.


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